Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Five Weeks, Five Locales

I am now back from Hong Hu Bai Miao (my friend’s brother’s wedding) and Shi Shou (visiting with another friend and his family). But only for one day: Tomorrow early it is off to Beijing, the furthest north of my destinations and the biggest city to visit on this whirlwind of travel.

In these five weeks, the sum total of my winter break, I will have visited Shenzhen, Nanjing, the two villages mentioned above and the country’s capital. That is a lot of traveling, even for a vagabond. I’m kind of road weary… AGAIN! (See the Greyhound Adventures of summer 2011)

But I learned some things along the way. One of them being an understanding of bed jackets, crochet, cross stitch – or, all matter of needlework, and knitting. I always had an academic understanding of the need for such activities. They are genteel and nearly sedentary forms of work, and what has been come to be known as ‘woman’s work’. I now intellectually understand why women undertake that work.

While in those two villages the thought niggled at me again that homes in China are not heated (I’ll get more into that in another entry, once I settle down enough to write it). The women with whom I visited had hands that were swollen and purple, work roughened, and with open sores, even. These women do laundry in the river, cook with only the bare minimum of kitchen accoutrements and wash their dishes in cold water… just like the women in America, Europe and indeed all over the world have done since civilization put its stamp on humanity – or does that work the other way around? And they do it in frigid temperatures during the winter.

Once the so-called women’s work is done, they sit around, knees draped with a quilt and take out their knitting, crocheting, or needlework in a visual negation of ‘idle hands are the devil’s tools’. If there is a heat source in the home they will sit near it and if there isn’t they will retreat to their bed.

And that is where the bed jackets come in. While their legs are warmed (at least somewhat) by the quilts draped over them, their upper bodies remain exposed to the freezing cold. Women of means had fancy bed jackets, maybe trimmed in fur but poor women had serviceable garments, just enough to keep them warm.

And thus the women of China spend their days.

I’ve often said that living here is like living an anachronism. Even life in the city is like stepping back in time: the barter and honor systems still prevail in the smaller neighborhoods, vegetables are sold at the open air market, one buys meat from the butcher and rice from the dry goods store…

But life in the countryside goes even further back in time. Although all of the houses I visited had both indoor plumbing and electricity – and that only barely, any other luxury or modern advances in construction or comfort technology were nowhere evident. I don’t mean that there weren’t televisions or computers because each of the homes was equipped with those, although not to the extent that you would find in American homes, or even homes in the city. I mean things like cooking utensils and equipment. Martin’s mother had to get up before the entire household to stoke the fire in the kitchen so the rest of the household could have hot water, for example. At Celia’s house the kitchen cupboards were bare of any finery or even glassware. They use crockery – bowls, or plastic cups to drink out of.

Come to think of it, those were just bare of anything. The cabinet doors that were open revealed nothing inside. But I’m overstepping the purpose of this entry in revealing that. I’ll go into more detail about the whole ‘country’ experience when I get back from Beijing.

I enjoy living backwards in time. The honor system, a cash based society, a place where a man’s word is his bond. But, I think, the country living that I witnessed this past week is a little too far back in time for me, especially being a woman. I would not want to have to work that hard for daily life.

So now, after stepping back in time nearly 100 years let me go to the epicenter of modern China: Beijing. See you when I get back, in 3 days!

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